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Hamlet. A User’s Guide

Actor Michael Pennington’s beautifully written User’s Guides… are full of insights on matters of interpretation as well as production.

- The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (2010)




Sunday Telegraph, 4th February 1996, Robert Cushman

 

A hit, a very palpable hit!

 

Michael Pennington has played Hamlet five times and Hamlet twice. In other words he’s been in five productions of the play, in three of which he has appeared successively as Fortinbras, as Laertes, and as Claudius-doubled-with-the-Ghost. But he started at the top, playing the prince in a Cambridge student production in 1964, and he returned to the part with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980.

 

With all that to go on, he has written a book: Hamlet: A User’s Guide (Nick Hern Book, £18.99). he describes it as ”a kind of owner’s manual. I’m offering no views on whether you should have left- or right-hand drive or what colour the model should be, but I know the push-bang-suck of the engine by now and how the distributor works – perhaps also which passages call for pure brake-horsepower and which deft cornering.”

 

I suppose I have read, or pretended to read, car manuals that were as knowledgeable as Pennington’s, but I have never come across one that was remotely as witty, or as charming. He goes through the play, scene by scene, analysing action, pouncing on character detail, outlining (though, as a matter of policy, never resolving) ambiguities, in fact rehearsing the play on the page. Occasionally he offers modest suggestions about staging. He makes selective but illuminating use of theatre history. Acknowledging that it sounds “hubristic”, he places the book in the line of Harley Granville Barker’s famous Prefaces to Shakespeare. He might also have referred back to a slightly earlier and even more celebrated critic, the Victorian A.C. Bradley, who said that his method of dealing with a Shakespeare play was to approach it as if he were an actor studying all the parts. That’s what he said. Pennington seems actually to have done it. He’s as illuminating on Gertrude, Polonius or Ophelia as on the parts he’s actually played.

 

Unexpectedly perhaps, the book doesn’t go in much for autobiography. What there is occurs in his introduction and footnotes, which are amongst the best things in the book. (“Some kindly people in Stratford have told me that [when I was rehearsing Hamlet] they would see me wandering around the town and be afraid that I would absent-mindedly step into the path of a bus”)

 

I’m not sure whether Pennington’s five on-stage encounters with Hamlet constitute a record, but I would like to stake a small associated claim of my own. I have for reasons educational, recreational or vocational seen every one of them. As an undergraduate two years his junior, I saw his student Hamlet. I even reviewed it, for a short-lived university rag. I don’t remember much of what I wrote (and, to my chagrin, he hasn’t got it locked in his memory either) but I’m sure it was mostly favourable. I remember it as a lively, sympathetic and – I’m sure I used this word – conscientious performance, one that made sense of every line: not a quality to be taken for granted among amateurs or professionals. I know I called it “the most intellectually exciting performance” I had seen at Cambridge, a description that aroused howls of outrage from the arbiters of theatrical opinion. Excitement was supposed to be a visceral thing, and intellect, if not actually shameful, was quite beside the point. Pennington had quite a lot to live down, since he turned out to be the rare university actor who actually got a good degree. (He attributes this to a certain fluency in exam-speak.)

 

These days he also directs. At least he directs one play. He did Twelfth Night for the English Shakespeare Company, the maverick touring company he ran with Michael Bogdanov, and he then did it again in Tokyo. Now he’s directing it at a small but thriving Shakespearean theatre in Chicago – one of the best Shakespearean companies on a continent that’s dotted with them. It’s director, Barbara Gaines, who raved to me about Pennington, is determined to have him back to direct Hamlet, which really seems sort of inevitable. Or as he says, it’s putting his money where his mouth is. And, of course, he’s now well qualified to write a user’s guide to Twelfth Night.

 

So with all this activity, surely he must be an intellectual actor? In fact the idea makes him shudder. “I hate it. I never function intellectually as an actor. I’m not an analyst in rehearsal.” Nor, I suspect, would he care to think of himself as a romantic actor, an Establishment actor, or an English-gentleman actor (“I’m a Celt. My mother was a Scots girl, my father was Welsh”) though his fair hair and gentle, melodious voice have often typed him this way. Some canny directors have reversed or tilted the image. Peter Hall had him play Fortinbras, to David Warner’s Hamlet, as a blond Fascist beast. His Laertes, with Nicol Williamson, was directed by Tony Richardson to have an incestuous passion for Marianne Faithfull’s Ophelia. Whether for that reason or another, his grief at her grave was unusually convincing.

 

After all the unkempt Williamsons and Warners, Pennington was cast by John Barton in Stratford (in 1980) to restore some traditional princely glamour to the title role. He did not altogether oblige. “I thumped Ophelia to the ground in the Nunnery Scene.” That’s in the book. In conversation he expands on the theme with relish: “I think Hamlet’s an intolerable man. It’s no wonder the Romantics adored him. He has all the flabby idealism of the Romantic sensibility. I encouraged hostility from the audience when playing Hamlet.”

 

I can’t say that he actually got it. Like most Hamlets, rough or refined, he wound up with the audience’s sympathy. It’s built into the play, for aesthetic rather than moral reasons, as Pennington says himself, “Hamlet has your inner ear.” Actually one of the best things about the book is the balance it keeps between the intolerable Hamlet and the irresistible. And the larger contrast it draws between the apparent faults of the play itself  (“it seems impossible for a production to make the play frame the man and the man belong to the play”) and its overwhelming virtues (“galvanic force in the theatre, an ability to heal, and an effect on an audience unlike any other I know”).

 

He actually wrote it while playing Claudius, keeping himself busy while touring (Leatherhead to Brighton via Athens) in last year’s Peter Hall production with Stephen Dillane as the Prince. “Now,” he says with the authority and tolerance of middle-age, “I find Claudius more interesting than Hamlet.” Also perhaps more sympathetic. “There is no evidence that there’s anything wrong with the status quo in Denmark.” Claudius is “the perfect apple with the worm inside”. He is also “very playable as long as you keep in all the plotting”.

 

The Hall production did keep in all the plotting, and Pennington’s Claudius emerged as the best I’ve ever seen: also possibly the best performance of his career. He started with an impeccable façade (some of the details seemed to have been borrowed from the public persona of Sir Peter himself) which eroded, slowly but remorselessly, from the first stab of acknowledged guilt. As his desperation grew, so also did his borrowed majesty. It was also a perfect demonstration of the area where, in the actor’s own words, “sympathy collides with moral shock”.

 

Pennington’s introduction to the classics was classic. At the age of 10 he was “dragged very unwillingly” to see Macbeth at the Old Vic and was hooked. It wasn’t, he admits, quite as neatly revelatory as all that; he already “loved reading Shakespeare in class” and the Macbeth was “striking a bell that was already there”. The Vic was working its way through the entire canon, and he had seen nearly all the plays long before he left school. It’s the stuff that educational fantasies are made of, though it may be statistically likelier to produce critics than actors. It perhaps contributed to the traditionalist image that has dogged his career. People were surprised when he teamed up with the iconoclast Bogdanov to form the ESC, and even more so when he played a markedly unsentimental Henry V in the cycle of the history plays that defined the company’s style. It might have been called eclectic-brutalist, though the eclecticism embraced some conservative aesthetics as well.

 

Pennington recalls that “it was very cheeky what we did”, challenging the National and RSC on their own repertoire and beating them hands down at the touring game, home and abroad. “They couldn’t fault us on the verse-speaking or the editing. But we weren’t regarded generously by the theatre Establishment.” The ESC cast new actors in leading roles but, though they won high praise, it didn’t seem to lead to much success elsewhere. “My regret is that we didn’t change more careers.” He doesn’t regret having packed it in after eight or nine years, proud though he is of what they achieved. As an actor-manager he found that he ran into  “the same crises every year – and always at the same time every year. And I didn’t enjoy chasing money. I became physically tired. I won’t do it again.”

 

Towards the end of the book Pennington refers to actors playing Hamlet as “part of the logic that almost outmoded thing, a ‘classical career’. His own Stratford Hamlet happened that way, even his Cambridge Hamlet may have been a conscious first step on the road, but as he says, “to decide now at 21 to be a Shakespearean actor would be regarded as eccentric”.

 

He does have a new Shakespeare part coming up: Shakespeare himself, in a radio play by Don Taylor. And he still has ambitions for Timon, Lear and Prospero. But what he most wants to do now are new plays. (He’s actually done more of them than he lets on: Shaffer, Stoppard, Pinter, Brenton, Harwood, David Edgar.) He also has a one-man show on Chekhov. And though all actors these days write books, his is exceptional.

 

 

 

The Glasgow Herald, 13th February 1996, Mark Fisher

 

“Here’s the full text of an article I wrote for the Herald (Glasgow) which was published in edited form on 13th February. It’s a combined review of Michael Pennington’s ‘Hamlet: A User’s Guide’ and an interview with Tom McGovern who played Hamlet at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh last year:”

 

Whenever we put together kitchen units, wire up a hi-fi or load up a new computer programme, we have no hesitation in turning to the manual for help. Yet when you put together a production of a play, you’re left to piece the bits together pretty much by yourself. Even when that play is one of the most frequently performed work in the English language – as is the case with ‘Hamlet’ – there is little opportunity for one performer to pass on those useful tips about how the thing works, what the best way to treat it is and what to do when the warrantee runs out.

 

True, there are endless shelf-loads of academic treatises on the work of Shakespeare, and Hamlet, in particular, but your average actor, operating from the heart not the head, tends to be suspicious of anything born in the privacy of the study instead of the limelight of the stage. Very belatedly the world of drama studies has come to realise that scripts need to be understood in terms of performance not in terms of literature, but it is still the case that the bulk of an actor’s learning is done through stage experience not through solitary study.

 

There is, however, a middle line and it is one that actor Michael Pennington has struck in his book, ‘Hamlet: A User’s Guide’, published last week. Here is just such a manual to help you piece together the nuts and bolts of Shakespeare’s tragedy, written not from the airy perspective of a university professor, but the practical viewpoint of a performer who has appeared in ‘Hamlet’ five times, twice in the lead role.

 

He knows it inside out. And he knows it in a way that is, for all his perceptivity and insight, fundamentally down-to-earth. This is an artisan’s analysis – certainly not above warning the prospective director against cutting a scene in case he should lose its emotional resonance, but just as likely to recommend a cut for the pragmatic reason that without it the show will run to half-past eleven.

 

In short, it’s something any actor – and indeed any audience – could learn from, achieving the considerable feat of sharing a lucid and practical understanding of the play without imposing a directorial vision or standing in the way of new imaginative interpretations. He does this with a clear-sighted admiration for Shakespeare, celebrating the playwright for his unerring dramatic instinct even while he picks apart the logical inconsistencies of the plot. Take this on Gertrude’s speech after the death of Ophelia: “The hoary old question – why didn’t she save her instead of watching her drown? – is best left in the Green Room, since we know by now that Shakespeare will sacrifice anything for a good speech. A modern playwright wouldn’t get away with it.”

 

Pennington isn’t above the quest for knowledge – on the contrary, his book is rich in historical facts and background information – and he has managed, despite his familiarity, to remain sensitive to and enthusiastic about Shakespeare’s innovations, like the unexpected positioning of the coarse grave-digging scene immediately after the suicide of Ophelia. His reference points are wide – he gets the ‘Oresteia’ and ‘The Lion King’ into a single sentence – and his advice is sound – “These are beautiful lines that should not be spoken beautifully,” he warns at one point.

 

And what comes across most forcefully is just how much the character of Hamlet affects the actor who plays him. Of course, the appeal of the play is widespread. Even now, Robert Lepage is developing a one-man version in Quebec, Peter Brook is staging an experimental fragmentation in Paris, and Richard Demarco is drawing up plans to stage it on the Edinburgh fringe. Pennington’s book follows only a matter of months after Steven Berkoff’s ‘I Am Hamlet’ (Faber and Faber) and Anthony B. Dawson’s ‘Shakespeare in Performance: Hamlet’ (Manchester University Press), which, oddly enough, uses the same RSC picture of Michael Pennington, circa 1980, on the front. But it is the actor in that great central role who is ensnared more than anyone by this play. Like Pennington says, “it changes you for good, and for the better”.

 

That’s certainly a sentiment confirmed by Scotland’s most recent Hamlet, Tom McGovern, who played the Dane in the fast-paced Edinburgh Royal Lyceum production last autumn. When he talks about the character now, he can’t help dropping into the past tense – Hamlet was McGovern’s best pal, someone killed him last December and it hurts. He’s over the worst of the morning now, but for three or four weeks he knows he was unbearable to live with. The 32-year-old actor, who has taken big roles like Arturo Ui and Dr Faustus in his stride, has never known a part like it.

 

“From the day I was asked to do it, my life wasn’t the same,” he says. “I just couldn’t get him out of my head. I had copies anywhere I might be – at my mother’s, my mother-in-law’s, my sister-in-law’s.It was like being given something to take care of. I cared so much about him, I felt more like a friend of his even before I started rehearsals. In drama school you’re always talking about degrees of getting away from yourself, and I think it’s about as close as I ever got to being another person.”

 

Finding parallels with the early death of his own father, McGovern found himself closely identifying with Hamlet’s unresolved relationship with the old king. And from before rehearsals began, the part crept its way into all aspects of his life. “I t managed to envelop you even in your dreams,” he says. “My dreams were phenomenal prior to it, during it, and after. I was having dreams about my father being in it as the ghost! My wife said I was often reciting in my sleep. I had one awful dream when I was doing ‘To be or not to be,’ and someone in the audience started laughing, I just lay down on the stage and I woke up crying.”

 

As many actors have testified, the part takes you far beyond personal identification, and by the time it came to returning home to Glasgow, McGovern had yet to appreciate just how much Hamlet has become an obsession. “I felt like I’d lost someone,” he says. “I had a bit of a rough time with my wife when I got home, because it was like someone had died; you had all the memories and it had meant so much to me for months of my life. I was impossible to live with and I had to apologise to my wife.”

 

It’s a continual source of fascination that this one role, unlike any other, can so thoroughly absorb an actor. Quite how it could be so is a mystery whose answer must lie somewhere in the enigmatic character of Shakespeare himself, a man Pennington describes not only as “a gifted tart, scraping a theatrical buck,” but also as a writer who “anticipated both Samuel Beckett and bepop”. All life is in ‘Hamlet’, and a considerable amount of it finds its way into Pennington’s wise and entertaining book.


 

The Daily Telegraph, 24th February 1996, Patrick Garland


“We have been so used to this tragedy,” remarks William Hazlitt in his celebrated essay of 1817, “that we hardly know to criticise it any more than we should know how to describe our own faces.” Or, the trouble with ‘Hamlet’ is, as the old lady said, it is full of quotations. After a modest disclaimer querying the value of yet another book about ‘Hamlet’, Michael Pennington has come up with the proposition of a ‘user’s guide’, as to a Mercedes Benz, a CD-ROM - or the galaxy. For whom is this ‘Hamlet handbook’ designed: the scholar, the lover, the student, the actor? Possibly all four. Each would carry away from it something unusual and rewarding.


In theatrical mythology the on dit suggests no actor totally succeeds as Hamlet. Max Beerbohm is perceptive in his judgement when he writes that the role of the prince of Denmark is “a hoop through which every eminent actor must sooner or later jump.” Three or four eminent or ‘hot’, young actors have jumped at least this last winter; none have been thought definitive, none have altogether failed. Mr Pennington, himself a noble and romantic Prince of Denmark for the 19802, has performed in every scene of the play, apart from the Polonius/Reynaldo dialogue, and the exchange between Horatio and the sailors - a convincing 600 and some performances. His intuitive ‘feel’ for the rhythm of the play gives him a privileged perspective, frequently amusing and always unpretentious, never ‘actorish’ and on occasion scholarly and ingenious.


Is it such a common knowledge that the 12th-century source by Saxo Grammaticus has a hero called Amleth, which translated means ‘Simpleton’? Who knows there is a portrait in a Peterborough cathedral of Old Scarlett, the gravedigger, with a 16th-century gaze of, simultaneously, a man of death and a clown? Can there truly have been a young Rosenkrantz studying at Wittenberg University a few years before the play was performed in London? Mr Pennington wears his learning lightly in the entanglement of our three principal sources, the bad First Quarto, the better good second Quarto, and the posthumous long First Folio of 1623. Is there any written reference to an earlier unknown ‘Hamlet’ at a suburban theatre in Newington Butts? If only a dog-eared prompt-copy of that would turn up in ‘The Antiques Roadshow’! Although Orson Welles declared Hamlet, above everything else, “a Renaissance Prince of Genius”, the greatness of Hamlet may well be his sublime inconsistency. William Empson has referred to a blankness at the centre, which makes the play so thrillingly lifelike and profound. Certainly ‘Hamlet’ makes every man and woman a critic, even the Cambridge University bedmaker, at Laurence Olivier’s film, telling her friend, at the end of the closet scene with Gertrude: “Well, dear, if I was his mother, I’d slap his stupid face.”


One of the wonders of performing the role - as opposed to reading it - is that from the moment the Queen says: “But, look, where the sadly poor wretch comes reading”, down to the end of Act IV Scene V, and his departure to England (two hours later), whoever plays Hamlet carries the burden of the richest dramatic and poetic thought in the entire sphere of European art, and, I would hazard, much wider besides. Not is Hamlet off-stage for more than a page.


Michael Pennington’s ‘insider-view’ reveals this with vision and passion and scholarship. And above all, experience. “Playing the part,” he writes in an admirable metaphor, “is like a pane of clear glass disclosing the actor to a greedy audience, and playing it changes you for good for the better.”


The spectator, also - if he is blessed by the honesty of the performer, an unabridged text, and the humility of the director.



 

Night and Day, 3rd March 1996, Nigel Planer

 

If anyone should know what Hamlet is about, it’s Michael Pennington. Reading his biog at the front of his book Hamlet: A User’s Guide (Nick Hern, £18.99)it seems as if he’s been in it, in one role or the other, for most of his 20 years as an actor. So it might seem a bit of a cheek that I am reviewing his book. Not only have I done hardly any Shakespeare, but I am that bastard who has prodded and poked fun at the whole ‘profession’ for so long. Still, this handbook is, in a way, just up my street.

 

Despite Pennington’s protestations, this is a scholarly piece of work. The fact that it is written from a performer’s pragmatic point of view, giving us a blow-by-blow account of the play from ‘a soldier call Francisco stands on guard’ to ‘the lights go down on Hamlet’, makes it all the more valid, and definitely of more use to students than many of the other dry pieces I remember having to plough through for A-levels.

 

There are some great quotes too: ‘This is a medieval revenge story severely compromised by Renaissance humanism’ would surely merit at least a B-plus in anyone’s GCSE. Although I’m not so sure whether describing Hamlet’s madness as ‘an unrewarding search for eccentric dress and funny voices’ would go down quite so well with the curriculum police.

 

I did feel that occasionally Pennington sailed dangerously close to the winds of pretension. ‘What can a man say about his own Hamlet? and ‘At the Gielgud, meanwhile we laboured away amid the rats, the tarts and the urine’, raised in me the giggle of a not entirely good-company member. But probably this was just a bit of bad old Jasper-Jealousy on my part. Nobody has ever asked me to play the Prince, and so I have never had the opportunity to discover, as Pennington has, that ‘playing it changes you for good, and for the better’.




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